a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.

the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

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